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The Cheerfulness of a Stalwart Man: An Evening with Stephen Fry

October 24, 2011

Way back in April it was announced that Stephen Fry would be stopping in The Hague on his book tour to promote his new autobiography, The Fry Chronicles. My friend Anne and I jumped at the chance to see him live and immediately reserved our tickets at the theatre where he would be speaking. Last night, that magical moment finally arrived.

I must admit, I’m not well-acquainted with all of Fry’s projects (of which there have been many). I’ve read some of his non-fiction and columns, seen a couple of his shows, watched his documentary on manic depression, and of course his voice is beyond familiar to me, as I’m a big fan of his readings of the Harry Potter series. Anne, on the other hand, could be considered a Fry scholar (in fact, I told her this should be her scholarly niche. All of us dwelling on the lower rungs of academia need one of those, right?). As such, it’s not surprising that she was positively glowing when we met up early in the evening to pick up our tickets. But I, too, was not without enthusiasm. I’d been reading The Fry Chronicles and had been growing evermore excited about seeing this smart, eloquent, fascinating, conflicted man speak.

We arrived at the theatre after having consumed a delicious Early Bird Special at a local restaurant some 45 minutes before the event was about to start to find quite a large number of people already waiting. The event, as we learned, had turned out to be so popular that the organizers set up a video screen in the smaller theatre next door. Thankfully our tickets were for the real thing and pretty soon we started queuing outside the entrance. Before the doors opened we were told how the evening would proceed (a reading, then an interview, then a signing – no dedications, because that would take too long) and then we all got to run inside and find seats. As Anne and I are perpetually over-prepared and over-eager (not to mention over-excited), we managed to snag front-row seats, which put us at the same level with “the Ambassador” (we assume of England). We were surrounded by a motley crowd of Anglophiles, Fryophilhes, and a ridiculously large number of fellow Leiden University students. When Fry walked into the room around 10 past 8, the theatre exploded with applause and a ripple of excitement went through the audience.

Though we had been promised a reading and an interview, nothing of the sort happened, and no one was sorry about that. After greeting us in Dutch, Fry spent a good 30 minutes “lecturing” on a variety of topics (though it was happily unlike any lecture I’d ever attended – and I’ve attended many). He talked about the nature of writing, the importance of art and culture, the magnificence of the Dutch language, his documentary on Wagner, his documentaries on language, and of course his life. He even mentioned how The Netherlands used to be known for its acceptance of oppressed and persecuted minorities and how that attitude and reputation are now under attack from within. As he related the tale of a woman who had been in Auschwitz when she was 15 and had playedSchumann’s Träumerei on her cello for Mengele while she was there, he adopted a faint, seemingly authentic, and very slight accent. The audience was absolutely captivated. There were some snapping cameras, but there was hardly any fidgeting. The only two disturbances came from a woman who was rooting around in a plastic bag for a bottle of water (and she was good-naturedly singled out by Fry early on) and the camera man, who was the only person in the room who had not heeded the repeated requests to silence all cell phones.

After the “lecture” had come to an end, Fry and the interviewer (a journalist for the daily Trouw whose name currently escapes me*) took their seats and Fry was given a large box of Sugar Puffs (a cereal Fry was quite addicted to in his early childhood). It soon became clear that Fry speaks best when he’s allowed to speak freely, rather than forced into certain channels by staid and clichéd questions.  The interviewer, who got off to a bad start by opening his first question with “So, Stephen,” continued with, “if your life were a day, would your childhood be breakfast?” and got progressively more irritating from there (once commenting completely out of the blue that he was getting 400 euros to do this interview), thankfully ended up being merely a mild nuisance due to Fry’s insistence to tell (and finish) lengthy stories which he himself considered the most interesting and pertinent. Since the audience was there for Fry, not the interviewer, everyone was very much on the Englishman’s side. And despite being interrupted by the interviewer several times, Fry managed to keep the audience under his spell and completely interested in any and all topics he discussed (even the history of Macintosh/Apple).

The plenary part of the event ended with a question from the audience (“What are your favorite words in Dutch and English”), the answers to which (mopje (dearie), stalwart, cheerful) led to Fry’s final comment that in the end it’s not the big-letter words (Truth, Wisdom, Knowledge, etc.) which will save humanity, but cheerfulness and kindness. Then, the race to the signing table was on, and Anne and I (well, mostly Anne) led the charge as much was we could in our high heels and on the slippery floor. After a short wait (Fry had stopped by the other theatre to say goodbye to the poor souls who’d spent nearly 90 minutes staring at an out-of-focus live feed) we all got out our books and started snaking towards the tall man who had taken his place behind the table. And though we were once again told by the organisation that there would be no dedications, Anne’s comment to Fry that she “just wanted to hug [him] while [she] was reading The Fry Chronicles” resulted in her getting a “To Anne. Love, Stephen Fry” signed on the title page of her book. Anne’s night was made (“he wrote it with an –e!”) and, even with a simpler signing, so was mine.

If I may take the same liberty with words which Fry often takes himself in his writing, I’d say it was a magical, fascinating, interesting, illuminating, inspiring, utterly satisfying evening. And as I continue my everyday life, I’ll carry with me Fry’s comments about writing (which were partially borrowed from Thomas Mann). Writers, he said, are those people who understand that writing is hard. That it’s nearly always a struggle. But at the same time, that it’s something that they cannot help, which they simply must do. He continued that often people give up, that they believe their struggle with writing is a sign that they just cannot do it, but that it is in fact these very same people who are coming to grips with writing and that if they just keep up the struggle and not give up, they will understand the true nature of writing. This is something of which I often need to be reminded, both as a blogger and as an aspiring scholar, and I know many others do too. That said, it is also quite remarkable how easy it is to write about a moment of great enjoyment and happiness, as I just did. Writing may be a struggle as a process, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have great bursts of inspiration and productivity every once in a while. That said, I’m fully aware (as Fry also noted) that the chances I’ll hate this piece when I read over it again tomorrow morning are spectacularly high. But for now, my post-Fry bliss remains.

*I have since learned his name is Arjan Visser, and he is also an author and the 2003 winner [3/7 edit: made the shortlist] of an important national literary prize, which just goes to show that talented people are not necessarily talented at everything.

This post was originally published in Persephone Magazine.

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